WASHINGTON. — Washington-- Congress often behaves irresponsibly, and critics of Congress constantly are saying so. A Senate committee pillories an outstanding jurist; a House committee approves a host of pork-barrel projects. These things happen.
But we are not so quick to salute an occasional job well done, and such a salute is in order. On July 25 the House did itself proud. Members voted solidly for reason as opposed to emotion. They voted to end the ban on research in fetal tissue transplantation; and they voted to authorize a carefully screened survey of adolescent sexual behavior.
In brief, the House voted in favor of enlightenment and against ignorance. You might suppose that such a vote would be the easiest thing on earth to cast, but you would underestimate the apprehension that Bill Dannemeyer and Bob Dornan can engender. The two California Republicans are evangelical terrorists. They threaten the kind of political damnation that scares timid fellows half to death.
The bill before the House on July 25 was a bill to extend operations of the National Institutes of Health for another three years. It was a comprehensive measure, embracing 17 separate titles dealing with everything from child health to Alzheimer's disease, but two issues dominated the debate.
One of them dealt with the use of fetal tissue in medical research. The controversy goes back to 1988, when a blue-ribbon panel conducted six days of hearings, heard views both pro and con and recommended that research go forward under certain safeguards.
Regrettably, the president of the United States disagreed. The administration imposed a flat ban on such research and no experiments have been performed with federal funds. Meanwhile, biologists here and abroad have found encouraging, though not conclusive, evidence that minute tissue taken from fetal brains may be usefully transplanted to the brains of persons suffering from Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease.
There is reason to believe that such transplants also may benefit victims of juvenile diabetes, cystic fibrosis, epilepsy and spinal cord injury. The question is whether tissue from induced abortions should be simply discarded, or whether it should be preserved for research and treatment.
Proponents emphasized the safeguards. No one could be paid for providing fetal tissue; no donor could direct the transplantation to a particular individual; transplants would have be done under strict medical protocols. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., said it would be ''unconscionable'' for the ban to be continued.
Dannemeyer, leading the opposition, insisted that fetal tissue is ''human life.'' Therapeutic transplants would take our people ''down the road to degeneration.'' Mr. Dornan thought the research would be Hitlerian, ''medical science at its worst.'' Other opponents described the proposed research as despicable, indefensible, diabolical and, in the case of Parkinson's patients, unnecessary and dangerous. A woman might rationalize a reluctant decision to have an abortion by telling herself the tissue might be used to help someone else.
The debate moved on to the second major controversy. This involved an amendment proposed by Mr. Dannemeyer: ''The secretary of health and human services may not . . . conduct or support any national survey of human sexual behavior.'' Representative Waxman promptly offered a counter-amendment to authorize such a survey subject to certification by the NIH that a survey would be useful in reducing the incidence of sexually transmitted disease.
Messrs. Dannemeyer and Dornan, among other opponents, cited some highly intimate questions that had been proposed for such a survey two years ago. At the time it was proposed to ask 13-year-olds about their experience with oral and anal sex. It transpired, as debate continued, that the most offensive questions had been dropped. Moreover, the questions cited in debate might be asked only after the answers to preliminary, less-explicit questions indicated a need to follow up.
Jim McDermott, D-Wash., supporting the study, charged that a vote for the Dannemeyer amendment ''is a vote for ignorance.'' That about summed it up. The House voted 283-137 to authorize a sexual survey. Then it voted 274-144 for the bill as a whole, including the go-ahead for fetal research.
All in all, a good day in the House. We haven't had many such good days lately. If the bill reaches the White House in its %J present form, George Bush will veto it. A rational interlude will not have lasted long, but that will be something to talk about when the time comes.
James J. Kilpatrick is a syndicated columnist.